Greetings from muggy Miyagi!
After a week of hurtling around Hokkaido and northern Honshu, I have screeched to a halt and am adjusting to a rather different state of affairs here in the Tohoku countryside. The stream that trickles alongside Ottobakate House and an orchestra of hissing cicadas are forming the bass line for the laziest of soundscapes. Even the torrential rain that drums down onto the roof appears to be doing so rather unhurriedly.
I’ll say no more about my current location for now, as I feel it deserves a much more detailed rendering than is possible in a post which could already end up being pretty chocca if I’m not careful… all I will say for now is that I am kicking back in a very rural, very traditional Japanese pad, the minimalist furnishings and fascinating inhabitants of which I am finding an utter delight. Teaser photos below.
Let’s wind back the clock to this time last week, which saw Amanda-chan and I exchange the smouldering heat of Tokyo for the thoroughly welcome freshness of The North…
Sapporo. From the moment the plane’s wheels grazed the runway, we agreed that Hokkaido felt different. I watched the new landscape whizz by through the window of the airport shuttle bus; the scrubby, rain-starved flora of greater Tokyo had been replaced by verdant meadows lined by swelling spruces, and everything looked decidedly well-rained-on. That said, the sky was a promising forget-me-not blue, and the air maintained a crispness long since dampened into non-existence further south. By dusk, we were knocking on the door of our Sapporo host, a lady named Akiyo whose pad has definitely secured itself a high ranking on the quirky accommodation roll of honour… The myriad emails I had received containing all manner of annotated diagrams and Youtube links with which to locate the place might have been some indication of what we would find within… every inch of the place had been plastered with explanatory notes about how to operate the house’s every fixture. “How to open milk carton” next to the breakfast things was a particular highlight. More gems below – incredibly sweet and thoughtful, if not altogether useful.
Furano and Biei. Now well-versed in operating the toilet, cranking up the air-con and switching on the hairdryer, we rocked up to Sapporo Station early the next day for a full schedule of northern tourism. We jumped aboard a bus along with a crew of predominantly Chinese and Japanese sightseers, and were soon being driven eastwards up and down the undulations of Furano. It was entirely idyllic, and recalled strongly the twinkling summer days with which England occasionally blesses its inhabitants: orderly, patchwork fields of corn and wildflowers bobbing in the breeze… The road through this most pleasant landscape led to far less familiar sights, however. Before long, we were off-loaded at a little wooded area concealing a lake so eerily blue that even the most filter-obsessed Instagrammers would have felt no need to enhance their snaps. The inventively named Aoiike (Blue Lake) owes its unearthly hue to a high concentration of minerals dissolved in the water, and put me in mind of the copper sulphate crystals I remember growing as a child. Quite stunning.
Farm Tomita a.k.a. Lavender Central was next on the itinerary. Alongside the sweeping carpets of purple, we discovered multi-coloured strips of white baby’s breath, red poppies, pink garden catch-flies and orange California poppies. We spent a good while attempting to capture these striking colour combos in photo form, pausing to slurp lavender-flavoured ice cream (MAKE THIS A THING, UK) and to note that signage explaining the history/reason behind the place’s existence was nowhere to be found. I reflected that there may well have been some information in Japanese lurking somewhere on the plot, which my brain had simply dismissed as an auto-response to non-comprehension. But the pronounced lack of info versus the abundance of lavender-scented/flavoured/shaped products on sale, plus the hoards of photo-takers (ourselves included), did seem to indicate an unabashed doing-away with the pretence that anyone actually wants to know facts any more, and that a much more commercial, image-based brand of tourism is here to stay…
Onuma and Hakodate. We made our way southward the following day after an all-too-brief mooch around Sapporo itself – a clean, spacious city to which I really must devote much more time at a later date! The Hakuto Express snaked its way along the coast, bringing us down to Onuma, which I was keen to visit on account of its celebrated “QUASI-national park” (quite how a park can be quasi-national remains something of a mystery to me, but there we go..). There was nothing quasi about the beauty of the place at least; we ditched our backpacks in a station locker, rented a couple of bikes from a nearby store and spent a blissful couple of hours pedalling around the lakeside, dismounting every so often to wander up to a particular beauty spot or lakeside shrine. Back near the bike rental, there was time to snarf a squid ink-flavoured ice cream (surprisingly not gross at all, despite its unpromising appearance) before jumping aboard a cutesy one-carriage local train down to our next stop: Hakodate.
If there is one place in all the world in which to take a sneaky break from veganism, it had to be Hakodate. This curiously higgledy-piggledy port town is so crammed full of fresh, locally-caught seafood that resistance was, for me at least, completely futile. Within an hour or so of arriving, we were tucking into grilled mackerel and crab soup, followed the next day by a market-place lunch of scallops served in their shells. The extensive fish market comprised hundreds of stalls selling seafood of every description, from bright orange, brain-like sea pineapple to giant slabs of monstrous-looking monkfish. Watching visitors catch their own squid from a large tank in the centre was at once traumatic and hilarious, as each creature thrashed about on the end of its captor’s rod, squirting onlookers with jets of water before being carried off by the proprietor and returned to the captor minutes later, sliced up on a plate with a side-dish of soy sauce.
By nightfall, we had picked our way around various impressive mansions on the other side of town, and Amanda had struck gastronomic gold yet again by stumbling upon “the Second Most Delicious Melonpan in the World”. Now how’s THAT for smart advertising. Another classic example of the Japanese obsession with weird food combos, melonpan is a heated, melon-flavoured roll with a generous dollop of soft scoop sandwiched in the middle. What the MOST Delicious Melonpan in the World must be like I can only imagine…
Oma to Osorezan. 9:30 next morning saw us watching Hakodate disappear into the distance from the deck of a ferry bound for Honshu. I was delighted to discover that we had no ‘seats’ as such, but rather a large space to lie about in (shoes off, of course!), rather like a child’s play area. Well-rested after a couple of hours in the play pen, we disembarked at the remote town of Oma and boarded a local bus that ran us alongside the glistening sea through a string of tiny fishing villages. We arrived in the small town of Mutsu, where we befriended a crinkly-eyed Swiss lady with irises the colour of the Blue Lake and who, it turned out, was also heading to Osorezan: the mountain at the end of the world.
Osorezan is one of those places that has to be ‘felt’ to be understood. The mountain plays host to the 1000-year-old Bodaiji Temple, which itself sits alongside a lake so still and other-worldly that it’s easy to imagine why some Buddhists consider it to be the entrance to the afterlife, and why it is often likened to the River Styx of Greek Mythology. We spent a good few ours roaming the desolate, volcanic landscape, getting acquainted with the numerous Buddhas that hold vigil over the mountainside, breathing in the sulphurous air and imagining the lost souls gliding to their rest across the lake…
Wow this is shaping up to be a long’un eh! Such a lot to cram into this post, but I’ll stop here and let my photos do the rest of the talking… News of shenanigans in rural Tohoku on their way very soon!
Stay happy and healthy, one and all! BIG love.
K x x x x x
Made a furry friend at Onuma
Five watchful Buddhas
A new tribute to those who were lost in the 2011 tsunami at Osorezan
Waiting for the local train at Onuma
Hakodate quayside at dusk
Rice paddy art outside Aomori!
Aomori is apple capital. My valhalla, wouldn’t you think? Turned out there wasn’t one bloody apple to be bought ANYwhere. I went into withdrawal. Not kidding.
Loving life in general
Different coloured rice is gown in a pattern to create the amazing bird’s eye images
Eating white corn at Hakodate market
Nebuta festival float in Aomori Station
Slow day at the office for this bloke at Aomori fish market
Me and Amanda-chan at Aoiike
Hakodate by night
Bodaiji Temple, Osorezan
Onuma late in the day
The bridge to the afterlife
…and one final gem for you. Pay particular attention, if you will, to the bottom right-hand corner.
“If you lose balance you are gonna fall down on shit.”